The media plays a crucial role in our political and legal systems. The media reports on events of the day, including major decisions, criminal activity and major trials. Media reporters also provide scrutiny of governments, laws, courts and legal procedures. This scrutiny ensures that our governments, legislatures and courts are acting appropriately, treating people fairly and achieving outcomes beneficial for our society. Media scrutiny holds both political leaders and public officials accountable to the people. For these reasons freedom of the press is one of the core rights in a liberal democracy.
The media can also play a lead role in bringing about changes to the law. Perhaps the most obvious impact of the media is that it can shape and influence public opinion and values – and where the media exposes or reflects a clear shift in public opinion and values, this may bring about a change to the law. The media can generate public interest or even outrage about a particular issue or case, which may create pressure for governments and law reform bodies to act. The media can provide a platform for interest groups campaigning for law reform. The media itself can sometimes campaign for law reform, running numerous reports, feature stories and editorials. By reporting on trials, sentencing and other legal matters, the media provides public scrutiny and information about how the law operates in practice. It can therefore draw attention to laws that are outdated, ineffective or contain loopholes.
The reporting of law and order issues, particularly specific crimes and their impact on victims, can be quite strong. In Australia the tabloid press (newspapers such as the Herald Sun (Melbourne), Daily Telegraph (Sydney) and Courier Mail (Brisbane) as well as television current affairs programmes and talkback radio, all devote considerable time and energy to criminal reporting. Among their particular concerns are whether sentencing for serious offenders is appropriate, whether the legal system is skewed in favour of the accused instead of the victim, and whether capital punishment should be reintroduced. These themes are constantly revisited in the popular media because they are emotive and of public interest. Unfortunately some reporting can sensationlise or misrepresent the facts in order to attract readers, listeners or viewers.
Occasionally, media outlets will openly campaign for a change in the law – and because politicians need the media ‘on side’ to enhance their chances of re-election, they will usually listen to what the media has to say. The formal abolition of the death penalty in Victoria in 1975 was influenced by a media campaign, drawing attention to polling results that showed less than 50 percent of Victorians did not support capital punishment. In 1980 Melbourne’s The Age newspaper ran a campaign called ‘Give the Yarra a go’ that resulted in legislative and regulatory changes, resulting in improvements in water quality and management of the river. The success of the Howard government’s gun law reforms in 1996-97 was largely because these reforms were supported by most major media outlets. These campaigns were all explicit attempts to change the law, however media outlets can also be more subtle, calling for reforms in their editorials and commentary, the stories they choose to cover and the sources they choose to consult.
The media can therefore be an important tool for bringing informal pressure for law reform, serving as a conduit of information and communication between the parliament, politicians, pressure groups and the general public. But it should be noted that most media outlets are privately-owned companies that can sometimes act in their own interests and the interests of their journalists and proprietors.